Local rancher Spencer Ellis is ‘bullish’ on Wyoming agriculture

Editor’s note: The Chronicle is featuring area rancher Spencer Ellis this week for National Agriculture Week, which was March 10-16. He is providing a snapshot of local and state agriculture with a focus on beef.

By David Peck

Like many ranchers and farmers, agriculture production is a labor of love for Spencer Ellis. As a third-generation beef rancher and farmer of a variety of crops, his days are long, and even many nights are spent on the ranch bringing in a newborn calf or dealing with another issue. He goes days with little sleep, as do other ranchers.

Courtesy photo
Spencer Ellis, posing here with wife Annette, is the third generation rancher operating the Flying E Ranch. Annette works the ranch when she’s not teaching math at Lovell Middle School.

And he loves every minute of it.

Ellis is the third member of the Ellis family to operate the Flying E Ranch west of Cowley after grandfather George and father Larry, who remains active in the operation. Son Casey represents the fourth generation and also runs a custom farming business.

Spencer Ellis has become a state and national leader in beef production, currently serving as Wyoming director to the Federation of State Beef Councils for the Wyoming Beef Council. He also sits on the Consumer Trust Committee.

His other local service includes the Shoshone Conservation Board of Supervisors, the Sidon Drainage District Board and the Farm Service Agency county committee. He has also served on the Wyoming Board of Agriculture and the Deaver Irrigation Board and is a longtime member of the Shoshone Stock Growers Association.

Ellis and his family own roughly 1,200 acres and lease another 600 acres in a given year. They also hold Forest Service and BLM grazing permits. The Flying E runs about 700 to 800 head of black angus cattle, and the Ellis family grows alfalfa, corn, malt barley, oats and sorghum for pasture.

And above all that, he serves as the superintendent for the Lovell Cemetery.

In short, he’s a busy guy, and wife Annette helps when she’s not teaching math at Lovell Middle School, as does daughter Melissa, a teacher at the Aspen Early Learning Center in Riverton.

This time of year, Ellis is busy tagging calves, driving through his pasture land each morning and evening in his trusty Jeep. He said the Jeep will go anywhere, and it’s actually much quicker than riding a horse.

As Ellis and a reporter bumped and crawled around the Ellis ranch, he spoke with pride about building the family’s herd of black angus and the variety of techniques he uses to keep the herd healthy and hearty and build weight.

He later sat down to talk about the challenges producers face during a time of depressed prices for beef and commodities. Beef prices are down right now due to an abundance of inventory nationwide.

“The demand is still there (domestically), but there’s so much of it (inventory),” he said. “It’s cyclical. Cows were high a few years ago, and everyone got into it. Many long-term producers grew their herds. It’s an eight- to 10-year cycle. We’re getting close over the next couple of years of being at the end of the cycle.”

David Peck photo
Spencer Ellis prepares to tag a calf Monday evening at the Flying E Ranch west of Cowley. During the spring he patrols the ranch twice a day looking for newborns and works many nights, as well, in a labor of love.

Many farmers were hit hard by last July’s hailstorm that raked Big Horn County.

“It got every crop we have,” he said. “It will affect people for years. Even those with crop insurance still had a loss, because all of your crop is gone for that year. You only get back the initial investment. The profit margin is gone.

“And for those without insurance (like Ellis) it is going to be years. It takes years to come back from, say, a $200,000 loss, especially with prices down.”

Indeed, crop prices are down, just like beef, Ellis said.

“Corn is down, and alfalfa seed contracts are largely going away due to over-supply,” he said. “It’s the same with most commodities. Barley prices
are up a bit this year, and contracts have increased in size (acreage).”

Ellis reminded producers that the deadline for the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program is due April 1 through FSA. The program provides financial assistance to producers of non-insurable crops when low yields, loss of inventory or prevented planting occur due to natural disasters.

He also urged producers to be aware of the Livestock Indemnity Program through FSA, which provides “benefits to eligible livestock owners or contract growers for livestock deaths in excess of normal mortality caused by eligible disease and eligible attacks” (by animals reintroduced into the wild like wolves), along with weather related events.

Call Brenda Miller or Connie Werbelow at the FSA Greybull office at 307-765-2663.

Wyoming agriculture

Despite current low prices, agriculture remains a vital industry in Wyoming, and Ellis provided some statistics and thoughts about the industry as a whole, as provided by the Wyoming Beef Council.

• There are currently 1.3 million cattle in Wyoming (all cows and calves), which ranks 23rd in the United States, with a total value from 2018 of $1.1 billion, 14th in the nation.

• The value added to Wyoming’s economy by the agricultural sector was $1.7 billion in 2018 and has been above $1 billion since 2003. Of the 2018 value added, animals and animal products accounted for $1.25 billion, crops $439 million.

• The beef industry`s secondary impact on the economy including grocery stores, feed stores, veterinarians, fuel dealers, health care providers and restaurants totals some $2.1 billion from spending, and according to a University of Wyoming study, agriculture generates an estimated $77.5 million in tax revenue for state and local government yet costs only 54 cents in local government services for every dollar of revenue generated.

Beef exports and tariffs

Ellis presented facts and thoughts on tariffs as follows:

• U.S. beef exports in 2018 shattered the previous value record and achieved  a new high for volume, according to year-end 2018 statistics released by the USDA and compiled by the U.S. Meat Export Federation.

Fueled by tremendous demand in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations region, U.S. beef exports reached 1.35 million metric tons in 2018, up 7 percent from 2017 and exceeding the 2011 record by 5 percent. Export value soared to $8.33 billion in 2018.

• Beef exports accounted for 13.5 percent of total beef production in 2018, up from 12.9 percent in 2017, and Wyoming exports match the same percentage of total production.

• On a per head basis, beef export values averaged $323.14 per head of fed slaughter, which was a 13 percent increase over 2017 and exceeded the 2014 record by 8 percent.

“An important thing to consider regarding exports is that these markets utilize cuts not desired here at home,” Ellis said. “For example, Japan takes nearly all beef tongues, Egypt nearly all livers. Increased value is realized when tongues, kidneys, livers, etc. can be sold for $7 to $10 per pound in foreign markets.”

• In spite of tariffs, international demand for U.S. beef has not declined.

• The Wyoming initiative being spearheaded by the Wyoming Business Council to provide beef to Taiwan is still underway, with funding appropriated during the 2019 legislative session. The Wyoming Beef Council is laying the groundwork in Taiwan by putting the faces of Wyoming ranchers on U.S. beef in the marketplace.

• Taiwan’s demand for U.S. beef continued to surge in 2018, with exports increasing 33 percent in volume and 34 percent in value from the previous records set in 2017.

• The WBC also campaigns in Japan and has for many years, with Wyoming ranchers featured in the meat cases of hundreds of mid-level Japanese
grocery stores and restaurant chains. Efforts include tours of Wyoming ranches and feed lots by Japanese travel and cuisine magazines and blogs.

“The United States is Japan’s largest beef supplier by value and a close second to Australia in volume, but this position is tenuous due to a widening tariff rate gap between U.S. beef and its main competitors, all of which secured tariff rate relief under the comprehensive and progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“In Wyoming there are approximately 2.34 cattle to every person, “leading to the logical assumption that the majority of beef produced in Wyoming is purchased and eaten outside of the state,” Ellis said. “That is why we market beef in foreign markets such as Japan and Taiwan and in highly populated areas in the
U.S. where beef consumption is lower.”

• Promotional efforts include a beef council website with a “meet our ranchers” page and media outreach into the five of the most populated states – California,  Florida, New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois – to increase knowledge of the nutritional value of beef and share recipe videos.

• The Wyoming Beef Council is continually working with health professionals and dieticians to share important beef research and to position beef as a food for strength in Wyoming and beyond.